WITTENBERG, Germany -- A grinning Nancy Monke posed for photos at the legendary church doors where Martin Luther blasted the Catholic Church and unleashed the Protestant Reformation. The Minnesota minister is part of a surge of visitors to the homeland of Luther, the stern monk in black robes who is making a 21st-century comeback.

With the 500th anniversary of Luther's breakaway coming next year, church leaders worldwide are working to spotlight his legacy, and to inject fresh energy into a once-radical faith battling an image as stiff as Luther's bronze statues here. Interest is intense in Minnesota, home to the largest number of Lutherans in the nation.

In his longtime home of Wittenberg, pilgrims in tennis shoes and clutching cameras meander the medieval cobblestone streets. Luther's face winks at you from a bag of Luther bonbons in shop windows and stares from six packs of Luther beer. Hotel reservations are hot, tour guides in demand. Luther's hometown is enjoying a multimillion-euro face-lift to welcome the 2017 blitz.

In Minnesota, roughly 2,000 Lutheran churches are gearing up for anniversary themes in Sunday schools, summer camps, history lectures and Germany tours. The Minnesota Orchestra is preparing to premiere a new Reformation symphony next fall. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is hosting a hot-selling Luther exhibit. Thrivent Financial has commissioned a TV documentary about Luther.

Celebrations aside, Lutheran leaders are seizing the momentum to bridge the 500-year-old schism with the Catholic Church, which excommunicated the former Catholic monk. Luther's defection emboldened religious and political dissidents across Europe, marking the birth of the Protestant revolution — and the revolutionary idea of church-state separation.

"I don't think the average person knows how big of a deal Luther was," said Monke, pastor at Sverdrup Lutheran Church in Underwood, just east of Fergus Falls. "The whole idea of individual freedom, that you can protest the church or any authority, really took off from him."

Standing at the church door where it all began, where Luther posted his famous 95 theses condemning the Catholic Church's practice of selling forgiveness of sins, or indulgences, Monke was both humbled and tickled.

"Eight days ago, this [image] was the backdrop during my sermon," Monte told a friend as she smiled for a selfie. "Now I'm here!"

Minnesota, Luther epicenter

Luther's legacy is particularly deep in Minnesota, and not just because of his followers' enduring embrace of hymn fests — often followed by Jell-O and hot dish. One in four residents trace their namesake faith to the monk from Wittenberg. Minnesota is home to the National Lutheran Choir, five private Lutheran colleges, one of the world's largest Lutheran seminaries, and the largest Lutheran synod in the nation. Its key institutions are rooted here: Augsburg Fortress is the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Thrivent Financial and Portico Benefit Services oversee finances for millions of Lutherans and others.

Minnesota's culture and temperament have been molded by the stoic Lutheran immigrants who settled the state.

"Lutherans have maintained a grip on Minnesota culture in a way it hasn't in other parts of the country," said Mark Granquist, a religion professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. "For 150 years, Minnesota has been an important center of American Lutheranism."

And many of those Minnesotans are heading to the Holy Land of Luther.

Monke, for example, was among about 35 Augsburg College alumni recently relaxing on a tour bus bound for Wittenberg, the preserved medieval city southwest of Berlin where Luther taught theology, took on the Catholic Church, married a former nun and had six children. The Minnesotans, including retirees, teachers and lawyers, arrived ahead of the estimated 500,000 visitors expected to swamp the town next year.

"Today is Reformation Sunday," Augsburg religion professor Hans Wiersma announced from the front of the bus. "This is how Luther is remembered here," he said, lifting up a copy of a German news magazine with Luther on the cover and the headline "The First Angry Citizen."

"Even if you're not a Lutheran, Luther is considered a national hero," he told the group as they approached the city. "He helped institute public schools. He created a cohesive national [German] language when he published the Bible in German. … He was a stand-up-to-the-man kind of guy."

The bus rolled past the small McDonald's where beer — one of Luther's favored drinks — is served, past the street corner where Luther allegedly burned his excommunication order from the pope, and then parked in the historic city center. The group checked out Luther's house and visited the churches where Luther preached and where he posted his 95 theses.

The high point for many was the Oct. 31 Reformation Day service at the newly restored Castle Church. The group set forth on foot in the chilly early morning, eyes lifted toward the church steeple shrouded in fog.

They walked the same, narrow cobblestone streets that Luther may have followed to the church. The streets were silent except for their footsteps.

"This is the dream," said Judy Mikolich, a retiree from Maple Grove. "Growing up Lutheran, going through confirmation, all these symbols of the Lutheran Church were so important to us. And here I am."

Inside the church, the past melded with the present. The minister delivered his sermon from the same elegant wooden pulpit where Luther preached. The front pews stood just feet from where Luther was buried below the floor. The pipe organ blasted hymns written by Luther that are still ingrained in his followers half a millennium later.

"It was very emotional," said Kathleen Johnson, a retired teacher from Shoreview. "I was thinking of my father, who was a strong leader in his church, and about Luther, and tying it all together. … I was thinking what it has meant to be a Lutheran."

Carol Pfleiderer of St. Louis Park was pondering the social action implications of her Luther immersion.

"The idea that people could think for themselves, that they didn't need to wait for higher authorities to tell them what to think, I started to see how those ideas had far-reaching consequences," said Pfleiderer, a longtime volunteer who was now thinking of new ways to give back to the world.

Luther's challenge

For Laura Hanson, one of the group's youngest travelers, the visit brought a different revelation.

Hanson, a nurse from Minneapolis, was struck by the historic splendor of the churches visited, but also by the fact that the Germans outside the church walls weren't particularly religious. That resonated with Hanson, who spent 18 years in Christian schools.

"I'm grateful my religious upbringing gave me the ability to challenge the church," said Hanson. "What didn't resonate for me was poring over the Bible and finding meaning in words written more than 1,000 years ago. There's a lot of other things that I'm more interested in."

Her response reveals the challenges confronting the Lutheran Church today. National membership in the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination, plunged from 5.2 million baptized Lutherans in 1990 to 3.6 million today. Most other Protestant denominations have witnessed a similar decline.

The average age of a Lutheran in the United States is 55. In many Lutheran churches, the worship format hasn't changed significantly since Luther's time. While denominations that attract a younger crowd serve up more polished productions on Sundays, with sound boards and lights, many Lutheran churches have been singing Luther's biggest hit, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," in the same way for centuries.

In one attempt to halt the drift away from church, a "Preach the Word" series is being launched for the 500th anniversary by the Missouri Synod, the nation's second-largest Lutheran denomination. The project will help ministers polish their preaching skills, which ideally will help retain members and draw new ones.

"Luther was such an excellent preacher," said Dean Nadasdy, president of the synod's Minnesota South District. "The whole idea is to honor our tradition."

Other institutions are also seizing the moment. Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house, is rolling out new books for adults and children, including a Reformation 500 Sourcebook offering congregations tips for hosting anniversary events and how-to articles such as "Commemorating 1517 Without Dressing up as Luther with a Hammer."

And Augsburg Fortress' parent company rebranded itself in honor of the anniversary, to 1517 Media.

"This is a time when there is interest in Luther in the broader society," said the Rev. Martin Seltz, the longtime publisher of worship and music resources for Augsburg Fortress. "People are asking, 'Who is this guy?' "

The crowds swarming the Luther exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) have showed Luther's surprising marketing power. Lutheran leaders hope other events big and small will recharge the faithful and attract others simply interested in Christian history.

Mount Olivet Church in Minneapolis recently resurrected Luther — in the guise of a retired pastor donning monk robes and all — at a retreat that is among its yearlong activities to mark Reformation 500. In the next weeks, the church is offering history lectures from area theology professors, and packing a symbolic 95,000 meals for Feed My Starving Children.

Family of Christ Lutheran Church in Chanhassen, whose members toured Luther's Germany earlier this year, is among churches organizing several trips to the MIA exhibit. In St. Paul, Luther Seminary and Concordia Seminary are lining up events for weekend Reformation festivals for next fall. The National Lutheran Choir will perform a piece commissioned for the anniversary.

Minnesota's ties to its German history are also deepening. Next year Bishop Ann Svennungsen, of the Minneapolis ELCA synod, the nation's largest, is taking 18 pastors and church leaders to the city of Leipzig, where Luther preached. In addition, the ELCA will spotlight anniversary themes such as "eco-reformation," and explore the implications of becoming a "sanctuary" denomination for refugees.

"I think there's a boldness that Luther can teach us in the 21st century in our engagement in the world," said Svennungsen.

An even more significant global movement is afoot. It was visible in a historic ceremony held Oct. 31 in Sweden, when Pope Francis and global Lutheran leaders participated in a "joint commemoration of the Reformation." Their joint statement said: "Christ desires that we be one …"

Among those at the elaborate ceremony was the Rev. Mark Hanson, a Minnesotan who is the former presiding bishop of the national ELCA and who has been a key player in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue. Hanson sees the 500th anniversary as a critical time in the history of the church, as well as in its relationship with Roman Catholics.

"If we don't make this year one of renewed commitment as Lutherans to be engaged in the world, then it will just be a nostalgic look at the past," Hanson said. "Luther was trying to make the church accessible to the people. We need to ask, what does it mean to be a movement — and not just an institution?"

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511